By Ramzy Baroud
This headline in Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post only tells part of the story: “The Lions’ Den, other Palestinian groups are endless headache for Israel, PA.”
It is true that the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are equally worried about the prospect of the ongoing armed revolt in the West Bank growing more widespread and both acknowledge that the newly formed Nablus-based brigade the Lions’ Den is at the center of this youth-led movement.
However, the growing armed resistance in the West Bank is causing more than a mere “headache” for Tel Aviv and Ramallah. If this phenomenon continues to grow, it could threaten the very existence of the PA, while giving Israel its most difficult choice since the invasion of major Palestinian cities in the West Bank in 2002.
Though Israeli military commanders continue to undermine the power of the newly formed group, they seem to have no clear idea regarding its roots, influence or future impact.
In a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz claimed that the Lions’ Den is a “group of 30 members,” who will eventually be reached and eliminated. “We will lay our hands on the terrorists,” he declared.
The Lions’ Den, however, is not an isolated case, but part of a larger phenomenon that includes the Nablus Brigades, the Jenin Brigades and other groups, which are located mostly in the northern West Bank.
The group, along with other armed Palestinian military units, has been active in responding to the killing of Palestinians, including children, elders and even a doctor, Abdullah Abu Al-Teen, who succumbed to his wounds in Jenin last week. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, more than 170 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza since the beginning of the year.
The Palestinian response has included the killings of two Israeli soldiers, one in Shuafat on Oct. 8 and the other near Nablus on Oct. 11. Following the former attack, Israel completely sealed off the Shuafat refugee camp as a form of collective punishment, similar to recent sieges on Jenin and other Palestinian towns.
Citing Israel’s Hebrew media, the Palestinian Arabic daily Al-Quds reported that the Israeli military will focus its operations in the coming weeks on targeting the Lions’ Den. Thousands more Israeli occupation soldiers are likely to be deployed in the West Bank for the upcoming battle.
It is difficult to imagine that Israel would mobilize so much of its army to take on 30 Palestinian fighters in Nablus. However, it is not only Israel that is terribly concerned, but the PA too.
The PA has tried but failed to entice the fighters by offering them a surrender deal, whereby they give up their arms and join the authority’s official forces. Such deals were also offered in the past to fighters belonging to Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, with varying degrees of success.
This time around, the strategy did not work. The group rejected the PA’s overtures, compelling the Fatah-affiliated governor of Nablus, Ibrahim Ramadan, to attack the mothers of the fighters, calling them “deviant” for “sending their sons to commit suicide.” Ramadan’s language, which is similar to that used by Israeli and pro-Israel individuals in their depiction of Palestinian society, highlights the massive schism between the PA’s political discourse and those of ordinary Palestinians.
Not only is the PA losing its grasp of the narrative, but it is also losing whatever vestiges of control it has left in the West Bank, especially in Nablus and Jenin. One senior Palestinian official told the Media Line that the Palestinian “street does not trust us anymore,” as they “view us as an extension of Israel.” True, but this lack of trust has been in the making for years.
The so-called Unity Intifada of May 2021 served as a major turning point in the relationship between the PA and Palestinians. The rise of the Lions’ Den and other Palestinian armed groups is just one manifestation of the dramatic changes underway in the West Bank.
The West Bank is changing. There is a new generation that has little or no memory of the Second Intifada of 2000 to 2005 and did not experience the Israeli invasion of that time, but grew up under occupation and apartheid, feeding on the memories of the resistance in Jenin, Nablus and Hebron.
Judging by their political discourse, chants and symbols, this generation is fed up with the crippling and often superficial divisions of Palestinians among factions, ideologies and regions. In fact, the newly established brigades, including the Lions’ Den, are believed to be multifactional groups that bring together, for the first time, fighters from Hamas, Fatah and others onto a single platform. This explains the popular enthusiasm and lack of suspicion of the new fighters among ordinary Palestinians.
For example, Sa’ed Al-Kuni, a Palestinian fighter who was recently killed by Israeli soldiers in an ambush on the outskirts of Nablus, was a member of the Lions’ Den. Some have claimed that Al-Kuni was a leading member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and others say he was a well-known Hamas fighter. This lack of certainty regarding the political identity of killed fighters is fairly unique to Palestinian society, at least since the establishment of the PA in 1994.
Expectedly, Israel will do what it always does: amass more occupation troops, attack, assassinate, crush protests, and lay siege to rebellious towns and refugee camps. What it fails to understand, at least for now, is that the growing rebellion in the West Bank is not generated by a few fighters in Nablus and a few more in Jenin, but is the outcome of a truly popular sentiment.
In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, translated by Al-Quds, an Israeli commander described what he witnessed in Jenin during a raid: “When we enter (Jenin), armed fighters and stone-throwers wait for us at every corner. Everyone takes part. You look at an old man … and you wonder, will he throw stones? And he does. Once, I saw a person who had nothing to throw. He rushed to his car, grabbed a milk carton and he threw it at us.”
Palestinians are simply fed up with the Israeli occupation and with their collaborating leadership. They are ready to put it all on the line; in fact, in Jenin and Nablus, they already have. The coming weeks and months are critical for the future of the West Bank and for all Palestinians.